Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Saluting the Brain : Ramachandran VS (2010) The Tell-Tale Brain – Unlocking the Mystery of Human Nature, Book Review

When babies are born, we’re happy if the weight of the infant is about 4 to 6 pounds. Adult brains that recognize this joy are often removed from a unique realization then. The adult brain is about 3 pounds of jelly itself, evenas it perceives the visual of the baby via its occipital cortex. By complex circuitry the same visual signals emotive states such as parenting joy in the adult brain. This human brain can imagine angles, contemplate the meaning of infinity and question its own place in the universe. Not since Carl Sagan’s book Broca’s Brain have I personally come across a book of science so lucidly expressed for the popularization of current scientific facts on the human brain. While VS’s preceding book Phantoms in the Brain was also a best-seller, I find this one particularly engaging. By his own admission, he has new things to say in the Tell-Tale Brain about his earlier findings and observations. That is what the scientific temperament is about. It is about self-correction through the method of science. Explanation is what the scientist offers after assuring oneself of the verifiability of one’s findings.

Cognitive neuro-science is also a domain that Daniel Goleman leans on to speak about Emotional Intelligence. Like Goleman, Ramachandran too pronounces the evolution in thought from research enquiries in the neuro-sciences. For the methodically conscious, case based explanation is a feature that runs richly through both Goleman’s Social Intelligence and Viliyanur Ramachandran’ s Tell-Tale Brain; their so called second-avatars in publishing. This speaks to the multi-sensory nature of phenomena we experience as also the object of enquiry here. This book stuns you through its research evidence. The evidence is out there in brief episodic narrations of research cases.

“These (cases) may sound like phantasmagorical short stories”, but essentially they are all true. In Ramachandran’s opinion the most difficult question of all is “How does the human brain give rise to consciousness?” He concedes that this question comes ‘perilously close to theology’. I am reminded here of Einstein’s mention of the most important question in science “What will make this Universe a safe place to live in?”  In order that VS prepares the reader to what must follow, he introduces appropriate frames of references. E.g. Phase transitions are sudden qualitative changes after a key point in incremental changes. Like ice melting at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, after moments of steady heating. Phase transitions, VS argues occur in social systems too. In evolutionary history therefore, our brains went through an explosive development in its key structures and functions. About a hundred and fifty thousand years ago, our brains went through a mental phase transition that marked the onset of full-fledged human language, artistic sensibilities, consciousness and self-awareness. Beyond genetic evolution, a faster pace of evolution was acted on our cultures through social learning. 

Ramachandran’s writing from the neuro-sciences tickles the imagination and enlightens our comprehension. “Think of what happens when an arm is amputated. There is no longer an arm, but there is still a map of the arm in the brain. The job of this map, its raison d’etre, is to represent its arm. The arm may be gone but this brain map, having nothing better to do, soldiers on. …This map persistence explains the basic phantom limb phenomenon – why the felt presence of the limb persists long after the flesh-and-blood limb has been severed.”…I had this sudden flash of intuition once when helping a large client of a century’s legacy with its IT based change across the organisation. I held up for the top management the phantom’s limb metaphor and their cognition that related to an erstwhile pride. The market was severed from the firm in the moment of facilitation, but organisational memory and social mores held up the myth of corporate pride long after it outlived its erstwhile functionality. This experience quite connected with them. Information Technology would become their new neural pathway. Change was about forming the new habits required to survive in the new environment.

For long, medical students were told that neural connections were laid down at birth never to change from its fetus stages. Hence to expect recovery in damaged brain function was held as a lack of plasticity in the brain. When one eye has a retinal disorder the other makes up in offering information to the visual cortex that compensates for losses in stimuli. Evidence now shows that the adult human brain can change over distances of several centimeters. A great deep unity between structure, function and origin marks the living biological system. Unique mental traits have evolved through the novel deployment of brain structures that originally evolved for other reasons.  The reader will find interesting facts of this nature throughout this book. 

Our perception of the world ordinarily seems so effortless that we tend to take it for granted. The evolutionary proximity we humans have with apes or other mammals is another great reason to read this book. In the human brain for example, much more is known about the visual region than of higher order brain regions such as the frontal lobes, which are involved in such things as morality, compassion and ambition. Language, visual acuity, mental dysfunctions are treated through the neurological paradigm. Each such theme is elaborately treated in this book. Yet that does not prevent the author from stating his scientific bias. He states that the only way to figure out neural activity is to open the black box or directly experimenting on the brain. He calls out the three ways to approach this object of enquiry; each of which can culminate in narrow ended specializations. These specializations are

  1. Neurology : studying patients with brain lesions
  2. Neurophysiology : monitoring the activity of neural circuits or even single cells
  3. Brain Imaging.
Methodology in science and philosophy of knowledge will therefore beset this frontier of human understanding as well. Hence the reader could do well to reflect beyond the episodic tales of patients whose Galvanic Skin Response for the Capgras syndrome causes quite a flutter of perceptual complexity. Imagine a patient complaining that he sees an impostor that looks like his mother with a corresponding increase in the Galvanic Skin Response. Actually, it is his mother, but he terms her an impostor with no mischief in intent. The myriad pathway of the visual apparatus in our brains is ‘mind-boggling’. Of equal challenge is the empiricism to deal with such cases from a neuro-scientific basis without resorting to psychiatric treatment. You will enjoy reading such cases in the book.

Consider the word synthesia. Now read the next word - synesthesia. Synthesia is a video game for Windows and Mac OS X (also working in Wine on Linux) which allows users to play a MIDI keyboard or use a computer keyboard in time to a MIDI file by following on-screen directions, much in the style of Keyboard Mania or Guitar Hero. Synesthesia on the other hand is a surreal blending of sensation, perception and emotion. Syneshtetes, as such people are called experience a kind of no-man’s land between reality and fantasy. They taste colors, see sounds, hear shapes or even touch emotions in myriad combinations, to experience the world extraordinarily. As for the word synthesia, you could go to the internet and learn the piano without an instructor of human form! (

Not only is VS’s decoding of synesthetic phenomena remarkable; he pulls it off with a literary flair. “Science traffics in objective evidence, so any ‘observations’ we make about people’s subjective experience are necessarily indirect or secondhand”. He then impresses us about the single-subject case method as the provider of such knowledge. Perhaps as he argues, creative people are better at metaphors because they are synesthetes. Those trained in Neuro-Linguistic Programming will recognize the sensory bias in his statement “Synesthesia is best thought of as an example of sub-pathological cross-modal interactions that could be a signature or marker for creativity”. 

Civility is a term that goes with grace and proper conduct. Our mirror neurons get triggered through two principal media – language and imitation. Culture has invested in sophistry and imitation that most other species do not engage in. We evolve glacially (slowly) compared to fish or birds from birth to adolescence and adulthood. Our species has traded off long-term risks in such an evolutionary track. VS teases out from research and the biology of proximate species the anatomical differentiators and the phase change evolutions of the human brain. Mirror neurons are one such feature. Imitation is a gift thereof.

The author’s special emphasis on our species capability for introspection is the unique contribution in this book. This Nobel Laureate expounds each of the following 7 aspects of the ‘self’ or at the very least his intuitions of the self in great scientific detail. Each of these is vulnerable to disorders, delusions and illusions! Yet these are the legs on which the table of the self stands.

  1. Unity – Despite the deluge of sensory information, you feel like ONE person.
  2. Continuity – Sliding temporal dimensions between past, present and future in a continuity of identity
  3. Embodiment – Anchoring of your experience is in the same body as the one experiencing it
  4. Privacy – Your mental life is your own, unobservable by others. Despite empathy, you cannot experience another’s pain
  5. Social embedding – The self needs to feel part of the social environment that it interacts with. It cannot have meaning in a social vacuum
  6. Free Will - At least two areas of the brain are involved in free will. One conjures up choices, the other makes you desire one over others, based on a hierarchy of values dictated by the pre-frontal cortex
  7. Self-awareness - This aspect of the self is almost axiomatic; a self that is not aware of itself is an oxymoron. When you use the word ‘self-conscious’ – you actually mean that you are conscious of someone else being conscious of you.

    VS’s empirical treatment of the above in his last chapters can bogus certain Freudian frames and psychiatric diagnoses with the disdain that his cognitive paradigms unravel. The adventure he embarks on for a living is supreme. I read this book with the deep seated desire to understand the self. It is psychologically impossible to understand others, unless one loves one’s mirror dimension in our own selves. As human beings, wandering into metaphysics and the origin of our species is an inescapable feature of one’s curiosity. This book in good measure traverses an equivalent of inter-stellar distance of mystery regarding the self- through our complex brain. It tells tales through people whom we need to understand with compassion, from that seat of our evolved brain – the pre-frontal lobes. We must also ask ourselves how sharp our senses are in the deluge of information we experience in an age of communication exuberance. The Glossary section of 12 pages is a treasure of medical terms and philosophical methods. This book is stimulating, nourishing in an educating way and a gift of the scientific method. The boundary between purposeful evolution and mindless destruction of our species is contrasted elegantly by such a book.

    Saturday, April 23, 2011

    Diversity in Learning – the OD India Sangam

    One of the most remarkable benefits of having the meeting of OD enthusiasts on April 9, 2011 had been the one of learning from early adventurers of OD in India. They were remarkably unassuming, authentic and free-flowing in expression. Their freedom in expression rivaled the openness with which they listened to young and old alike.  The one who listened most, may have been the one who spoke the least. But how were we to know? One among us who was neither too old, nor too young came alive with the issue, imploring the silent to speak. And when they did, at least two among them spoke for the goodness in the group. That is where their commonality ended. One seemed actively practicing ‘activity inhibition’ reminding himself that the forum was not his classroom. The other was perhaps wondering how he could intervene from his grounding in purposeful action, appreciating as he did the value of listening to the loquacious chatter of self-seeking individuals. Coming from a place he was trusting and trusted, he wondered when the comfort of that intimate understanding would culminate in a productive rapport. That is why one of the God-parents processed the conversation as one that individuals entered into in search of a group that fulfilled their deeper desires, and simultaneously a group so created in search of a set of complementary individuals. A certain other could not help recalling the intent of the spirit of the group as if in a bid to ward off any evils at a heavenly feast.
    These dynamics of the group are perhaps germane to the life of most groups. Bion, Festinger, and Moreno would make a feast of the goings on in this group for the tapestry they would have enjoyed in their own ways. There were tentative allowances for life to renew through the group’s very coming together. The departures in meaning that precipitated from mere English (some of them words as ancient as the language itself) were as intriguing as the elasticity of the group members’ perceptual width. The overtures and denouement in the round-robins of ritualistic democracy were like matters of a sociometry where the pecking order of ideas, constructs, and metaphor reigned like a hungry wind sweeping the atmosphere for vapor to form its hopeful cloud of a wishful shower of meaningful sentiments.
    On the other end of the gerontological divide, the myriad anticipations of youth were fascinatingly reminiscent of the human span of development. One among them reveled in the metamorphosis of a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ to a flitting ‘butterfly’. Synesthesia seemed a triumph of human imagination over ill-willed neurons. Another sought to appropriate all authority projected into him by a senior into the legitimate license for membership in the unformed group.  The power of the term in ‘referred power’ rang almost akin to ‘referred pain’ in the body. Yet another almost wrote the obituary to an experiment to the future of work organization, as a misadventure of the age of the internet and hand-held portable communication devices. The palpable loss of meaning in experiencing life in institutions resonated as strange reminders of the manifestation of hope without imagination.
    I noticed how remarkably diverse thoughts, expressed motives, attribution of needs, and visions for the group seemed to dip into a deeper unconscious, eclipsed by an unvisited curiosity.  A name for the group remained elusive due to a poverty of agreeable description. The need for a label for the group seemed so superficial and yet so tempting as to devour the bulk of the shared time spent together. It also indicated an oft learnt coping or anxiety reducing mechanism, to identify with a point of view that had rallying-point potential. Dealing with an open space was itself a process rife with unmet expectations, each of which added to the spectrum of diversity that the space was capable of entertaining, hosting and accommodating.
    Is leadership therefore the consequence of appropriating a void in such spaces that the many are willing to surrender to the few who articulate the modus operandi for control over meaning, relations and destiny of the group? The meaning of diversity had already elevated from the statistical count of Ph.D. qualifications in the group, and the number of practicing consultants. The richness of the phenomenon of diversity was a far cry from the inanimate numbers that represent gender, linguistic affiliations, and schools of practice. No wonder then the adage of leaders being dealers in hope. Leadership as process in groups is as important as life in groups itself, I thought to myself.

    Sunday, April 17, 2011

    There's learning from OD in India

    I humbly request readers of my blog to click here to learn more

    You will find some of my effort there along with authors in there, for there was a team to that effort. Humbling for me, as it perhaps was for the team that edited it.

    Check the list of attendees for example.....

    Saturday, April 9, 2011

    Need for Groups and Groups need for Individuals

    When I found the words "Need to belong to Groups" it was first in Max Kostick's Personality and Preference Inventory (Copyright now with Cubiks, UK) . I first put that down to the simple Need for Inclusion that came from the Auschwitz turned Professor of Psychology - Will Schutz (, author of the Human Element. Today, as I reflect on the proceedings of the OD India community / network, the words of Dr. Vijay Padaki ring clearly. As he processed and offered to the group his observation, it appeared that our conversations had to do with our individual need to belong to a group of similarly interested people. It was for the group to evolve to know what kind of involvement it needed from the individual. Else, the excess of individual entitlement in groups would end up in a laissez-faire situation. Group command over the individual on the other hand would end up in a totalitarian system. The polarity is a worthwhile one to consider.

    It also struck me that I had not named my blog Living in Groups accidentally. This 'emergence' was a conscious choice of living through the realization of the socially intelligent brain that neurologists today popularize. Man's social being is likely to be pronounced even further. The refrain that large corporations reduce the essence of individuals to mere 'resources' represented in 'numbers' in .xls files, the 'person' and her essence to life in corporations is at once at peril and tenuously placed for the future. While the rationalization of the organisation being bigger than the individual is a form of escape from the responsibility for fellow humans, the individual representing the decision of the large organisation stands the risk of being assailed by history as having aborted his creative capacity to nourish the balance between the individual and the organisation.

    The OD community of the year 2011 that assembled at WIPRO in Bangalore found it reflectively humbling (or so I would think) to recognize that OD was a product of its time. The Human relations movement sought to correct the imbalance between the efficiency ethic of large organisation and nurturing humanism of the small unit of society - the family or small organizations. It is also ironic that we fall back on historical traditions such as OD theory and Systems theory to comprehend the interdependence of institutions, and the sheer complexity of adapting social systems. The unit of effectiveness (as in paradigms of measurement) stands effectively challenged by the cause- effect ambiguity of complex living systems. Well, there's an instrumental appeal to the famous Kurt Lewin quote "There's nothing so practical as a good theory". We're in search of that organisational theory for our times. We're on the edge of discovery, and the adventure is a spirit kindled by the attitude of curiosity.

    Sunday, April 3, 2011

    The Chunk Bit

    When Rev. Dr. Dick McHugh SJ first emphasized for me the essence of chunking down I did not realise how meditated that assertion from him was. Chunking down is the breaking down of communication into small units. That experience was over two years ago. Bit, by bit as they say. The mind-body-emotion balance is what the brain helps us with when we are focused. Our mind can pay attention to no more than three to four units of information at a time. Well at least the normal population will agree. Traditions like the ashtavadhani or the mind that can pay attention to eight units of information processing continue. Those are rarer feats. Else, this note from me is for ordinary mortals. It could trigger the sub-conscious by what your mindful self will guide you to.

    I begin to wonder how the perceptual processes we engage in begins to tear down our world in infinite detail. While at the root of many of our ills and highs are perceptual processes, we form biases in our mind to arrive at relatively irrational decisions. Behavior is affected by our choice of focus. Rapt attention is focus - total focus and attention. "My experience is what I agree to attend to" - watch this video by Gallagher to catch what William James meant by this statement. Therefore processes of generalisation, deletion and distortion continue to be part of the human experience. Like me reading what I write to agree to what I see in script. I would be deleting from my mind alternate experiences that this script will not hold for me.

    When I saw Rosabeth Moss Kanter speaking about zooming in and Zooming out - she also cautioned against getting involved in somebody else's details while ignoring the big picture. She talks about focus as focus of strategic thinking for leaders. Watch that via the link here.

    Suppleness in thinking is about the conscious flexibility - the balance between self and others.

    Fr. McHugh has cured himself of sixth stage cancer by focusing on the triune - mind-body-emotion. Although well over 80 years of age, he has resolved or willed to be thinking and functioning as at the age of 40. 'Life begins at 40', a friend told me last year. Perhaps that is when our life's purpose becomes clearer to help us focus involuntarily. The integration of our senses, consciousness and meaningfulness perhaps occurs best at this zone of human living. Here's where the awareness that comes from conscious mindfulness can heal the self. Here's where the choices one makes in acting from that consciousness make our lives worth living. How we wish to express ourselves. Love is a decision, because one can choose to engage in a relationship. Base emotions like joy, grief, anger and sex are the more instinctual parts of human experience.

    While skimming through, do we deny information for our well-being without being conscious of the needs that others around us have? What do you want to focus on? Gather yourself, back to your chair, eyes closed and hands on your laps. Then breathe comfortably till you can hear your breath....

    Friday, April 1, 2011

    OD India Network - fabled origins

    Fr. Tom and I met in Minneapolis in 2005. It was at the ODN USA's annual conference. There were hardly 3 or 4 people of Indian origin there. Least did I imagine this scholar of philosophy studying for a PhD at the University of St. Thomas would descend on Bangalore. And when he did it was a while before we connected. The effervescent Roland Sullivan ensured we got connected. I learnt later that Roland facilitated meetings for Fr. Tom's congregation to intervene in the parish community there. I also learnt that the order owing allegiance to St Claret were the next most promising order after the Jesuits (of the Roman Catholic Christian sects) to devote themselves to education.

    What intrigues me now is that he could influence Fr. James Kannanthanam CMF his superior too, to come and share from his learning of OD at the first meeting on April 9 2011 of the OD India network. It was with great hope that we got Dr TV Rao to grace the occasion. He spread the word of our interest and today we've got over 26 attendees signed up for the meet. Academics, practitioners - external and internal, those with NTL and Tavistock and ISABS traditions, those with a Indian heritage, HR leaders of great experience, business strategy exponents and two students to complement our intent. IIM (B), IISc, St. Claret, Christ University, from Bangalore anyway represented. Sushma Sharma coming in from Mumbai is a great motivator.

    Eagerly looking forward. I recall my ODN posting from Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey " If you want the whole thing, the gods will give it to you. but you must be
    ready for it. The goal is to live with godlike composure on the full rush of
    energy, like Dionysus riding the leopard, without being torn to pieces.

    A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his
    initiation: "As you go the way of life, you will see a chasm.


    It is not as wide as you think." ;-)*